Stavronikita with Mount Athos in the Distance
Mount Athos refers not only to a single summit but also designates the entire peninsula and all of its monasteries. Here we see Stavronikita on the east coast silhouetted against the Holy Mountain. It takes one full day to reach the peak at 6,070 feet. From the summit, all twenty of the monasteries are visible, and thus, all of the monasteries can see Mount Athos.
Stravronikita was first founded perhaps as a skete in the 11th century but the present coenbitic monastery was built in the 16th century. It lies on the pathway that runs southward from Pantokrator to Iveron, and eventually to Vatopedi farther up the peninsula. This ideal view of the Stravronikita against the Holy Mountain, which feaures he monastery in the middle ground of the composition, was taken from Pantokrator. Like Stravronikita, almost all of the monasteries on Athos line on the coast; many of them have docks and direct access to the sea. Thus the structures, just as the mountain, define the sacred topography on Athos.
The physical topography of Mount Athos plays a significant role in the history of cartography. The mountain can be seen from over 100 miles.1 It is said that it casts a shadow on the island of Lemnos. Ptolemy in his 2nd century Geographia, was the first to have the length and width of the peninsula. The maps of his companion, Marinus of Tyre, placed Mount Athos at a central point, the point of least distortion, from which all else on his map radiated. Strabo between 64 BC and 24 AD also marked off the Adriatic Gulf with Mount Athos, detailing that those who lived on the crest of the Mount could see the sunrise three hours before those on the sea. Pomponius Mela, like other geographers of his period (1st Century AD), believed that the summit of Athos reached inner space, where clouds and rain formed.2
Athos is a device for geographical vision, as it was in rhetoric. A subject of ancient narratives, the mountain is used as a signifier for place in the epics of Homer, as well as a literary devise in the writings of Virgil, Ovid, Catullus and Lucian. Athos is in the network of famous Holy Mountains - Mount Sinai and Tabor.3 On Mount Tabor, the apostles Peter, James, and John saw the transfigured Christ, and God spoke to them through the clouds. God also addressed Moses from amongst clouds of smoke on Mount Sinai. In the New Testament, mountains mark the stages of Christ’s ministry. For over a thousand years, monks have been climbing Mount Athos seeking to imitate these biblical figures.4 On August 6th they celebrate Feast of Transfiguration in small chapel on summit.5
Della Dora, Veronica. Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place, from Homer to World War II. University of Virginia Press, 2011.
Kakalis, Christos. “Place Experience of the Sacred: Liminality, Pilgrimage and the Topography of Mount Athos – Volume I-II.” Phd. diss., University of Edinburgh, 2013.
1Veronica Della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place, from Homer to World War II (University of Virginia Press, 2011), 60.
2Della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos, 21-24.
3Della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos, 25.
4Christos Kakalis, “Place Experience of the Sacred: Liminality, Pilgrimage and the
5Topography of Mount Athos – Volume I-II,” (Phd diss., University of Edinburgh, 2013), 56, 124.
6Kakalis, “Place Experience of the Sacred,” 139; Della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos, 148-9.